St. Cloud State University

Faculty Energize University-Wide Assessment at St. Cloud State

August
2016

At many colleges and universities, the introduction of a new assessment project is met with something less than enthusiasm by faculty. At St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, however, university involvement in the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment (MSC)—a partnership among AAC&U, the State Higher Education Executive Officers association (SHEEO), and twelve state higher education systems with eighty-eight participating two- and four-year public campuses—has been primarily a bottom-up effort, led largely by faculty members.

Getting Involved

Minnesota was one of the initial nine states that signed on to be part of the MSC—a partnership designed to use a common set of rubrics, developed through AAC&U’s VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) initiative, to assess how well students have achieved the Essential Learning Outcomes. Campuses participating in the MSC submit samples of student work for inclusion in a nationwide VALUE database; each participating campus receives results for its own students’ work as evaluated by trained scorers. Lisa Foss, associate vice president and associate provost of St. Cloud State’s Office of Strategy, Planning, and Effectiveness, says that St. Cloud State’s late president, Earl Potter, was part of the earliest conversations about the MSC and “saw very clearly how important this national multi-state effort to think seriously about assessment was.”

Kristian Twombly, an associate professor of music at St. Cloud State who has been involved with the implementation of the MSC assessment, notes that during the university’s Higher Learning Commission reaccreditation process, it became “clear we were deficient in institutional learning outcomes.” After some faculty members attended a statewide assessment planning meeting at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, interest in the VALUE approach to assessment surged. “That’s really what began this program, which on its face was merely, ‘We’ll write our institutional learning outcomes, maybe develop a robust assessment system, and be on our merry way,’” says Twombly.

Instead, the assessment project grew to a greater scope than anticipated. “We had no institutional assessment officer or faculty person,” says Twombly. “We had lots of assessment happening particularly at the course level, a little bit at the program level, and at the institutional level it was kind of the wild west.” But, Twombly notes, “there was an opportunity that our participation in the MSC provided for us to learn about direct assessment”—where evaluators examine actual student work products for evidence of student learning—“which our campus embraced greatly.”

The VALUE Rubrics used by the MSC—which assess such learning outcomes as written communication, quantitative literacy, critical thinking, and intercultural knowledge and competence—go hand in hand with St. Cloud State’s own Husky Compact, a declaration of six desired learning outcomes the university intends for students to achieve during their education, including thinking creatively and critically, communicating effectively, and engaging as a member of a diverse and multicultural world. Together, these provided the platform for a far-reaching institutional assessment predicated on the willing participation—and leadership—of faculty.

A Faculty-Led Effort

Twombly attributes much of the impetus for a faculty-led assessment project to Potter. “President Potter realized very quickly that this would be a faculty-driven process,” he says. “We’ve had good institutional support for a core group of leaders which we very purposefully ensure is primarily faculty.”

One way St. Cloud State earned faculty trust was to avoid an across-the-board, administration-ordered assessment. “We try to get faculty involved at whatever level they’re willing to engage,” says David Switzer, an associate professor of economics and faculty fellow for assessment. “We haven’t done this as a mandate.” Switzer notes that faculty participation is voluntary, and that the assessment steering committee emphasizes that the results of the assessment are kept private and are intended primarily to help faculty adjust their curricula and, maybe most critically, their teaching methods. Even more than helping St. Cloud State as an institution, Twombly notes, faculty are “interested in improving their own teaching and learning and [their own] students' success.”

Faculty who choose to participate attend scoring workshops, at which a sample of student work is read by all in attendance and then communally scored based on the applicable VALUE Rubric. “The scoring part is really key with faculty members who aren’t quite sure what this is,” says Switzer, who notes that some faculty members have been deeply skeptical, questioning the value and utility of the program. Once the group scoring has taken place, he says, “they walk away having a much better understanding” and often feel that they are “learning something about our students.” Each department is asked for a certain number of “artifacts,” samples of student work, which are then uploaded into the national MSC database and scored by trained scorers using the VALUE Rubrics. “It works kind of magically and simply,” says Switzer, another selling point for wary faculty members.

From "My Course" to "Our Curriculum"

One result of the assessment process, according to those involved, has been a new perspective on the interrelatedness of courses across departments. “Prior to our Husky Compact, we had a very siloed perspective on this,” says Twombly, who adds that his thinking had been along the lines of, “I teach in the music department, my courses are appropriate for music students. They have to take a freshman composition class—that’s where they learn writing. I don’t have to teach writing. I can complain, ‘Oh, they must not be teaching writing well,’ externalizing everything.” Now, however, the connections between courses across disciplines are coming to light. “We’re trying to show the reality, which is [that] each course that a student takes contributes” to their overall education, says Twombly.  

St. Cloud State’s Husky Compact has provided a structure within which departments can identify the overlap that exists among departments. Twombly notes that, for example, nearly every program has a stated learning outcome involving written or oral communication, and most have outcomes regarding diversity. “What I hope to see happen first is programs reflect on their outcomes,” says Twombly, emphasizing that a deeper understanding of the ways in which aspects of the Husky Compact apply to many different courses may lead to a refinement of stated program outcomes or a tweaking of curricula and assignments to better achieve those outcomes.

Foss and Twombly credit the MSC with giving St. Cloud State the framework to implement this wide-reaching assessment. “I don’t know that we would have made the progress we have made without our involvement in MSC and our ability to connect folks on our campus with faculty and other institutions,” says Foss. “Our involvement in MSC helped us be part of a larger conversation and changed the conversation at a campus-based faculty level, as well.” Twombly agrees that the MSC introduced the tools necessary for undertaking such a project. “I cannot imagine we’d be where we are today without … participating in MSC,” he says. “It provided us a way to provide resources to our faculty and to do direct assessment, which is so much more powerful than indirect. It’s allowed us to really accelerate the conversation in a way that I don’t think we could have done without participating in MSC.”   

AAC&U extends its deepest condolences to the St. Cloud State community on the untimely death of President Earl Potter, a true friend to our Association and ardent supporter of liberal education. President Potter passed away on June 13 as we were beginning research on this article.

More information about the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment can be found on AAC&U’s website, where all sixteen VALUE Rubrics, including those mentioned in this article, are available for free download.